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It was hot today at the Tour. Too hot. Salt blooming across clothing hot. Can’t touch the steering wheel hot. Hot.
Yesterday was hot, too. That’s all anyone was talking about, and all that was on anybody’s mind. The conditions forced an immediate primal kind of response – a desperation to get away from it, an urge to drink all of the water and pour it everywhere in the hope that might bring some fleeting relief.
And because it was so hot, on the eve of the Tour de France’s final stretch and at the beginning of the Alps, the weather played a surprisingly significant role in the tactics of the day’s racing, won by Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) from a large breakaway group.
It was a stage targeted by Mitchelton-Scott and others in the move, and in a series of interviews conducted by CyclingTips before and after the stage, we got a fascinating insight into the tactical decisions and hydration choices made to contest the victory.
Beat the heat
At the stage’s start, at the 1st century AD Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard out of Nimes, modernity clashed with history. Above, ancient limestone arches spanned the Gardon River. Below, families and children floated on fluorescent inflatables. In the cedar-lined parking lot next to the UNESCO heritage site, there was a similar clash. The enormous team buses rolled in, sat there with their AC humming, and waited until the last possible moment to disgorge their riders.
The air hung thick and dense, nudging 40 degrees. Standing in the shade of an awning at the Mitchelton-Scott bus, David McPartland, Mitchelton-Scott directeur sportif, talked CyclingTips through the team’s strategy to beat the heat.
“We try and stay in the bus there as long as possible,” he explained. “It’s the first proper days of the summer that we’ve had. We’re halfway through the third week of the Tour and it’s the last big chance for a group going down the road. You can expect a massive fight at the start of the day trying to get in the breakaway.”
It was, McPartland told me, a day that suited a rider like Matteo Trentin – “guys that are fast and we know that they’ll get over the climb. We’re going for our fourth stage win [today].”
Over at Trek-Segafredo, serial escape artist Tom Skujins had his eye on the win as well. “It’s my last opportunity for a stage win, if there ever was one,” he told me. “I’m pretty tired, but everyone is … we’ll give it a crack.”
In the glaring sunlight, his Latvian national champ’s jersey a blaze of white and red, Skujins explained how the heat might affect his ambitions. “The heat is not my friend. I live where it’s cold,” he said. “Yesterday was the hottest Tour de France stage ever, from what I’ve heard, and it wasn’t really building up to this heat. It just suddenly happened; that doesn’t help me.”
Team strategies for combatting the heat are careful in their execution, but crude in their simplicity. At the stage start, the ice vests on Jumbo-Visma’s riders was about as high-tech as it got. Mitchelton-Scott’s approach: “Ice socks is the big one – we carry 20 ice socks in the first car, 20 ice socks in the second car, and then at every bottle point we have ice socks as well,” McPartland said.
And water. Lots and lots of water. “We have increased the amount of bottle points today – we have four, plus the feed zone. And we have guys on bottle duty to come back to the car – they’ll probably come back six or seven times as well,” he said.
Tom Skujins is a man who is good for a quote. He explained his water consumption thus: “Ingested? A lot. On top of myself? Even more.”
In extreme conditions like today’s stage of the Tour – the hottest day’s racing since the scorching Tour Down Under, according to McPartland – getting in the breakaway can actually be a tactical advantage.
Skujins talked me through the play: “We have some ice in the cars and we go back as often as we can to get them. We try and get more people on the roadside with bottles, because that bottle turns to tea pretty quick. 30 minutes later, it’s not much fun to drink anymore.”
If you’re a rider in the breakaway, though, you don’t need to mess with the logistics of roadside bottle hand-ups, as you have a dedicated follow car. “That’s why you need to get in the break – because the car’s just there,” Skujins explained.
Make the split
Within a scorching and scorched opening hour of racing, a substantial lead bunch of 33 riders established off the front with a rapidly growing lead. In the break, among many others, were the two riders who we’d been keeping an eye on; Matteo Trentin, and Toms Skujins. First task accomplished. Now, just the simple matter of who’d win the stage at day’s end, and surviving to get that far.
“We knew it would be really, really warm,” Trentin said in his post-race press conference. “Ice; ice socks on the back; in the helmet … pouring water everywhere.”
Slow-broiled, the bunch splintered in the lead-up to the final climb. Before hitting the slopes of the 3rd Category Col de la Sentinelle, Matteo Trentin had executed a bold breakaway, building a gap of 30 seconds by the summit and speeding down the descent to the win. In ninth place, 50 seconds later, Tom Skujins rolled over the line. 20 minutes later, the rest of the peloton trailed in, led by continuing maillot jaune, Julian Alaphilippe.
Mitchelton-Scott’s Tour of extremes
Matteo Trentin has played his hand a couple of times this Tour, most notably on stage 12 into Bagneres-de-Bigorre – a stage won by team-mate Simon Yates. It was a result that brought a mix of personal disappointment and team satisfaction.
Mitchelton-Scott’s entire Tour has teetered between those two extremes. Adam Yates, the team’s GC hope, spectacularly failed to fire. The scintillating battle for the yellow jersey has often overshadowed the team’s successes, too.
And yet, with four stage wins from breakaways – two for Simon Yates, one for Darryl Impey and Trentin today – it’s been an exceptional campaign for the Australian team.
“I wouldn’t have thought in our wildest dreams that we’d get four stage wins,” team director Matt White said at the finish today. “It’s crazy. You can work your arse off for years and years, and getting a win is so, so hard. To have four is just ridiculous.”
For Tom Skujins, he’ll leave the Tour thwarted in his ambition to win a stage, but can at least take solace in the fact that he was able to execute his pre-race plan. For Matteo Trentin, the race offered redemption for what could have been on stage 12. For Mitchelton-Scott, it adds to an impressive Tour de France campaign in a race that could have easily gone another way entirely.
And for the peloton and its entourage, finally, there’s hope of cooler weather as the race heads further into the Alps. Ironically, the racing’s only going to get hotter.